Spirit 3: the Holy Books

Humans need stories. We have always needed stories. And stories can take many forms, from fables to myths to fairy tales.

I could tell a bedtime story to my children this evening, something about a llama prince in love with a crab princess, and they would laugh and smile, and that story would exist for that moment only, then forever be forgotten. Or perhaps I could tell them this story every night, until it becomes an unforgettable part of their childhoods, something they remember forever, and then they could re-tell it to their own children, and it could take on a form of its own as they alter the details and change it just so. Or I could even write it down, with or without pictures, and then it becomes more permanent, something read and re-told exactly as I wanted it, and then in future generations, it is re-interpreted, given its own life by those who read it. And if I published this story, well, it takes on a life of its own.

I’m much more likely to tell my kids a story I already know. The Three Little Pigs, perhaps. Someone made that up along the way and it became an American staple, this story of pigs being pursued by wolves. The basic details stay the same: houses of straw and stick and brick, but many parts change. Sometimes the pigs have a mother. Sometimes the pigs are eaten by the wolf. Sometimes the wolf is scared away and other times he falls into a boiling pot down the chimney. The story exists in the American consciousness, it is given life by a shared psychic energy, an astral reverence among millions of people. And it all depends on which version is used.

But then imagine they believed the 3 Little Pigs was true, based on real events…

Even stories that are written down are interpreted and absorbed differently by the public. Think of the world’s most famous works, told and retold and retold again. The Wizard of OzRomeo and Juliet. Moby DickLittle Women. To Kill a Mockingbird. The Manchurian Candidate. The Handmaid’s Tale. Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Huckleberry Finn. Pride and Prejudice. And even more recent works: Harry Potter, Twilight, 50 Shades of Grey. These stories are revered, held sacred, they are frozen in time and reinterpreted, examined and taught in classrooms, sometimes they are even forbidden. They’ve taken on a life of their own. Humans need these stories to latch on to. They give us a shared reality, something to think over and whisper about. But we still see them as fiction–what if these were believed to be real, any one of them?

To make it even more complex, humans tell stories frequently about real events and other humans. But the stories change in the retelling… they take on new forms as events shift. Minor characters become major, certain things get forgotten, and we remember events as they were told to us, taught to us. They become fiction in the retelling, yet we often believe them as fact.

And then there is the greatest story ever told, the long epic of the Bible. Some humans, long long ago, gathered stories and put them in a book, and that book came to be revered as mythological canon, as human historical events. The book told of the creation of earth and man, it conjured a loving god who would destroy civilization when crossed wrong. It told of angels and devils, floods and famines, plagues and enslaved races. The book outlines strict laws, harsh commandments, and the laws of god that will lead to salvation if followed or damnation if set aside. And then there is a savior, the son of god himself, who saves all mankind and dies for their sins. Miracles abound for those who follow the rules. This book has shaped the human consciousness for centuries. Wars have been waged in its name, people put to death over it, entire races subjugated or even wiped out in genocide by those who profess to follow it. It’s been rewritten, reinterpreted, and reissued millions of times. It’s stronger than government, than family bonds, than human history. It is sheer power. While the other mythologies of gods have faded away (Norse and Egyptian and Celtic and so many more), the Bible has cemented its place firmly. There are around 7 billion people on the planet, and nearly 3 billion of them believe in the Bible in some form or another. Something around 40 per cent of human revere this historical book and interpret it as fact, in some form or another. But there are another 2 billion or so who identify as Muslim and believe in different books and mythologies. Another 500 million or so lean toward Buddhism, and another 900 million toward Hinduism. And every one of them can be divided down and down into different sects and branches. There are thousands of ways to be a Christian, for example, from Methodist to Lutheran to Amish to Catholic. And they all, every one of these groups, say they have it right.

And one of the newest and smallest Christian groups is the one I was born into. Mormonism. The founder of the church, Joseph Smith, introduced multiple new books of scripture, words on pages that would take on their own life in the human consciousness. The Book of Mormon (a supposed record of the ancient Americans), Doctrine and Covenants (supposed revelations given to Smith from God), and the Pearl of Great Price (a supposed record of the words of Abraham, Moses, and others). Smith and the Mormons reinterpreted all the rules, put a new spin on it, and said they had everything correct and the others didn’t.

As of 2019, there are an estimated 15 million Mormons on the earth, though clearly not so many active in the faith. An astounding number, it seems, until one does the math. 15 million out of 7.5 billion. Mormons make up… ready? 0.002 per cent of the world’s population. Not even half of one per cent. Not even half of a half of one per cent.

These books, these religious stories, held such a sway over my life, such a thick and heady force they were in my brain, that they shaped my entire psychology, biology, and spirituality for the first three decades of my life. It was only at age 32 when I allowed my doubts to take form and I chose to step away. As with all things, I look back at the things I used to believe and my brain curdles. I’m an educated man, yet I believed in two humans in a garden who were immortal until they ate an apple after being tempted by a snake; the appearances of angels with swords who destroyed cities; an entire planet wiped out by flood waters except for one man and his family who put two of every land animal on one boat; about the righteous white tribe conquering the evil dark tribe; about unseen buried golden plates; about immaculate conception and one man bearing the sins of billions. While I respect the rights of others to believe in their mythos, I see these events as nothing more than stories now. Powerful stories, yes, but not powerful enough to make me sacrifice my own happiness.

I love telling stories. I love reading stories. I love sharing stories with my children. But I will never again teach them that fiction is fact, and I will never place stories above their well-being and my own.

the Gay Library

I’ve been researching LGBT history for several months now. I read biographies pretty constantly, generally chosen at random–in fact, I’ve read about 100 of them now, and I’m consistently inspired by the stories that I learn. It was a few years ago when I started realizing that LGBT people show up in nearly every story, nearly every facet of society. Natalie Wood was surrounded by gay friends, Oprah Winfrey had a gay brother, Richard Nixon interfaced with gay reporters and politicians, J. Edgar Hoover himself was believed to have been gay and a cross dresser. Facts kept showing up again and again and again.

In many cases, the stories of LGBT people were ones I should have been taught in school. Bayard Rustin, a prominent leader in the Civil Rights movement, was gay. Barbara Jordan was a black female lesbian senator in Texas, and she investigated Nixon after Watergate. Sally Ride, first woman in space, was gay. Playwrights, singers, artists, performers, activists, world leaders. All names that I knew, just never taught that they were gay. These stories needed to be told.

And so I launched a YouTube channel, after months of planning and research. Every name that I looked up taught me about another 3 or 5 or 10 people I needed to research. I compiled lists of hundreds of names. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals, allies and enemies, and the history around them, including works of fiction and government policies. I started sharing the stories online, one per day with enough to last years. The research was all out there, I just had to dust off the right resources, one at a time, to make it happen.

So when I went to Los Angeles, for a little head-clearing adventure away, I learned of an entire library devoted to LGBT topics, and I knew I had to see it. Yet another long bus ride across town (the transit is not great), I finally wound up on the campus of USC (University of Southern California) and entered the ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives at the USC Libraries.

ONE-Archives.jpg

ONE magazine was formed by a group of brave queer activists in 1953 and ran for several years, making information available to the public about LGBT lives, theories, and studies, beginning to normalize LGBT lifestyles in the public eyes years before it was customary to do so. The magazine eventually closed down, and now the Archives were named for it, complete with a large framed wall piece with all of the magazine’s dozens of covers featured.

The space inside was small and very well organized. Shelf after shelf, row after row, all dedicated to LGBT books. Periodicals, art books, coffee table pieces, biographies on famous LGBT individuals, LGBT fiction, erotica, novels and short stories, almanacs, research compendiums. Upstairs were framed photos celebrating past activists from the area.

I talked to the woman at the front desk for some time, asking about the history and organization of the place, and told her of my current projects. She was kind, interested, and helpful in orienting me to the space.

I walked down the long rows almost lovingly, overwhelmed by the entire space. I contemplated my upbringing, not even knowing the word gay, and when I did learn it, I knew it was something bad and immoral, something to be scorned and avoided. But to be here, seeing it all archived, compiled, celebrated… it was thrilling, moving, and awe-inspiring.

I pulled out books at random, scanning through their contents and enjoying every word. I chose a few and spent a few hours perusing. There wasn’t nearly enough time. It would take a lifetime to read every book. I purchased a few small ones that I could carry home, thanked the librarian, and headed outside, where I sat in the sunlight and thought of this part of the world’s history that has become a new quest, grateful to know there are resources out there I wasn’t aware of previously.